Weightlifting, bodybuilding and powerlifting have all come along long way since they were first popularized in the 1970's. The gyms were hardcore – almost exclusively barbells, dumbbells and benches. Workouts were 3 – 4 hours long, and everyone was trying different techniques, different exercises, different tempos and varying rep ranges. And in the offseason, most were on a 'See Food' diet – if they saw food they ate it!
“No Pain, No Gain” was their battle cry, and they were no strangers to pain. The pain of overworked and over-stretched muscles was joined by pain from failed exercise variations, nutritional mistakes, lack of sleep, lack of sufficient rest & recovery – but they learned to work through it if they were motivated enough. Every gym goer from back in the day has comical horror stories about the aches and pains they worked through and the toll those days took on their health. And, now in their 60's, 70's and 80's, many lament what those workouts did to their knees, hips, backs, shoulders and spines. But they'll also tell you that given the chance to do it all again, they sure would.
But while No Pain, No Gain was an apt slogan for the 1970's, today's reality is “No Brain, No Gain”. So much research has been done in the past 40 years on every aspect of weightlifting and exercise, and anecdotal empirical evidence now exists from those who stayed with it through the various evolutions of the sport. Huge strides have been made in the fields of biology and kinesiology, nutrition (and especially sports nutrition), progressive resistance, hypertrophy and even exercise equipment itself.
Walk into the commercial gym today and, once you get past the recumbent bikes, stair machines, treadmills, ellipticals and other cardio devices, you'll probably see twice as much gym floorspace dedicated to exercise machines as to the venerated old free weights. And while macho gym rats will forever mock the machines, it's possible to put together an entire full-body workout for new members using just those machines, to provide the initial results they're after in a safer, controlled and graduated environment.
We now know that gains in the gym can be tapered to your goals – greater strength for powerlifters, bigger muscles for bodybuilders, enhanced cardiovascular capabilities for runners and endurance athletes and programs to aid in fat loss or lean weight gain, as you prefer. Still nothing that will do the workouts for you, but an amazing array of aids to ensure you're on the right path for YOU.
Pro athletes, weekend warriors and regular gym goers have also learned a lot more about nutrition and healthy eating. The traditional dinner of meat, corn and potatoes is now likely to be replaced by chicken or fish paired with sweet potatoes and broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Breakfast might be oatmeal and egg whites instead of sugary cereal straight from the box. And while their nutrition may be based on meal plans, paleo, IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) or vegan choices, they all share one main goal – to make sure your protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats ratio is in balance with your goals and that your total caloric intake level fits your plan to lose fat or gain muscle.
Yes, today's workouts have changed, most definitely for the better. Knowledge of progressive resistance and workout periodization have let us remove most of the unnecessary pain from being regularly active in the gym, and the advances in kinesiology have taught us better ways to move the iron to avoid the repetitive stress injuries and better protect the soft tissue and joints that keep our bodies functioning properly. Far from ending up musclebound, most weightlifters today have a better range of pain-free motion in their joints than the general public will ever have.
And for advanced intermediate lifters and experienced old pros there are advances too – but if you're probably new to the art of weightlifting, leave the bands, chains, over-reaching and supercompensation for a few more years down the road. Do not compare yourself to those who have been doing this for years. There's a reason it took them years to get there. Instead, take 'before' photos when you're ready to start, and compare them to new pictures every 3 – 6 months. The truest tests are how your clothes fit, how you feel when you wake up each day, how much energy you have and how deeply you sleep each night.
The best news? Most of the new knowledge you need to get to your goals is in your local library and even in your home, thanks to the Internet. These days it's easy to be able to walk into a gym for the first time already knowing enough to get started – safely. If you can afford a good personal trainer and have access to one, that can get you started even better – but be careful. Do not just blindly hire the largest lifter in the gym, or you may end up with someone who drug use masks poor knowledge, experience or technique. Ask around at your gym and see who others there recommend.
And above all, never stop learning. New weightlifting research surfaces daily and while there's too much to stay on top of it all, pick a few experts and follow them on their blogs and in social media – you'll learn a lot more that way than buying a lot of magazines filled with articles tailor to selling you supplements. A strong, healthy lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint – and carry the “No Brain, No Gain” motto with you proudly!